This recording, which
comes as part of Naxos’s 20th
century Choral Music series, was made
over an extended period of five days.
For a professional choir this represents
quite a long series of recording sessions.
Yet, we should not be altogether surprised,
because while this vast piece of unaccompanied
Russian liturgy may not sound challenging
it is a tremendous marathon to bring
Rachmaninov only completed
two choral works, the Vigil under discussion
here and the much rarer Liturgy of St.
John Chrysostom of 1910.
Russian Church music
had been a part of the composer’s life
since boyhood. Those readers who know
only a little of his music will remember
that chant plays a part either directly
(as in his use of the ‘Dies Irae’ say
in the Variations on a theme of Paganini
and in ‘The isle of the dead’) or indirectly
as in the many modal themes used in
the Second Symphony.
The booklet notes by
Hikka Seppala are some of the most useful
I have ever read. We are given a relevant
biography of the composer and a study
of his choral works. Then follows a
description of ‘The All-night vigil’
in the liturgy. The writer then elaborates
how the music fits into the liturgy
and addresses its structure. The full
sung text is given in Russian on the
left side and an English translation
on the right. This text consists of
psalms and prayers mixing with the ‘Hymn
of Thanksgiving to the Mother of God’.
Then comes the longest movement ‘The
Great doxology’ culminating in the ‘Kontakion’
for the ‘Annunciation’, much of it written
with great passion and sincerity.
There is a photograph
of the choir, a mixed male and female
group consisting of over sixty singers.
The basses are especially impressive
particularly below the clef. This gives
the kind of massive sound which you
might expect from Russian church music.
However the choir is Finnish and do
not have quite the Russian pronunciation
or colour that a real Russian choir
would have. The enunciation is not always
as crisp as one would really like. Just
because Finland is next door to Russia
one cannot presume that the singers
fully know the nuances of the language.
For example an authentic choir would
give great emphasis to ‘Bogu’ which
is GOD, the word always standing apart
from the surrounding ones. The direct
passion and the huge contrast of dynamics
associated with a powerful Russian choir
are not always delineated. If you want
that kind of performance you should
search out the version by RSFSR Academic
Russian choir under Alexander Sveshnikov
Of course the acoustic
does not help and the recording has
the choir set back a little too far
with loss of clarity.
The soloists are mostly
suitable although the contralto Erja
Wimeri, who is a member of the choir,
has a rather emphatic vibrato. Her sound
is mostly typical of contraltos from
Russia and indeed Scandinavia. It is
probably what Rachmaninov expected but
she may not be everyone’s ‘cup of tea’
especially British listeners. It’s true
to say that the general sound of the
women in the choir is not vibrato free
and why should it be? Singing devoid
of vibrato would be totally out of place.
The tenor, Eugen Antoni is mostly very
convincing but just lacks that final
open-throated power which I recall hearing
from tenor soloists in Moscow choirs.
To sum up: not a bad
release but not a favourite. If you
buy it then there is much to enjoy but
if you want something with real punch
then look again, either at the disc
I mentioned above or possibly at the
Seattle Pro Musica on Philips or the
Robert Shaw Singers on Telarc. While
both are American choirs each captures
the style and language imaginatively
and with finer soloists.
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